Sam & Cole: USA vs. Nigeria A Hit in Jacksonville

The US men’s national team defeated Nigeria 2-1 at EverBank Field in front of 52,033, a record for a US friendly in the southeast. Sam Kouvaris and Cole Pepper talk about both the match itself and what the event means about Jacksonville.

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52,033 fans watched the US Men's National Team defeat Nigeria 2-1 in Jacksonville. It's a record for a US friendly in the southeast (photo: Cole Pepper).
52,033 fans watched the US Men’s National Team defeat Nigeria 2-1 in Jacksonville. It’s a record for a US friendly in the southeast (photo: Cole Pepper).

Sam & Cole: Jaguars OTAs, Construction, US Soccer

It’s one of the busiest weeks in Jacksonville sports history. The Jaguars have an open OTA practice, the Suns, Sharks, Powerboats and the big event, the US Men’s National Team’s final tune-up for the World Cup as they take on Nigeria. Sam Kouvaris and Cole Pepper discuss.

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Night of a Lifetime

(photo by: Kathy Devine)
Holden Dillard meets his soccer hero, Thierry Henry in Jacksonville. (photo by: Kathy Devine)

Wednesday night at EverBank Field, an announced crowd of 5,656 watched the New York Red Bulls defeat the Philadelphia Union 2-1 in an MLS exhibition game. But for one fan, the game offered a memory that will last a lifetime. Here is 16-year old Holden Dillard’s story, told though the words of his father, Paul.
First, I’d like to tell you a little bit about Holden.  He’s a typical 16-year old who loves soccer and video games.  He has played at Westside Soccer Club for several years, and his favorite player has always been Thierry Henry, the French international player who has won the World Cup with France and became an international star with Arsenal in London.  Henry has won just about every team and individual honor that you can think of.  During Holden’s first season as a soccer player (when he was about 6 or 7 years old), he insisted that I buy him a pair of Thierry Henry cleats.  I can’t count how many Henry replica jerseys he has owned over the years.  He still has some of them hanging up on his bedroom wall.

Last year, Holden’s team made it to the Sweet 16 of State Cup, which was a great experience for him.  This past season, he “played up” as a 15-year old on a U17 team.  He had some pain in his knee, but we thought it was tendinitis and he took Advil and just played through it.  He played well in a Labor Day tournament, and then the following week he played what would be his last game.  He actually got a red card in that game for a slide tackle from behind.  I think he was trying to play a little more aggressively since he was the youngest kid on the team, and I think he earned a little respect from his teammates with that red card.

Holden in action before his diagnosis. (photo by Debbie Berlin)
Holden in action before his diagnosis. (photo by Debbie Berlin)

Since his knee wasn’t getting any better, we figured some downtime would be good.  He missed a couple of practices but the pain in his knee started getting worse.  We went to his regular physician, who recommended that we see a sports doctor.  Within less than two weeks after his last game, I had a doctor telling me that he thought my son had bone cancer.  Since we needed to confirm this, Holden’s mother, Robin and I didn’t want to worry him because there were other things that could cause these symptoms (such as a bone infection).  Holden and his brother Morgan had gone on a mission to Haiti with their Lee High School soccer team and we thought maybe he had contracted something there.  It sounds strange to pray that your son has a bone infection, but that’s what we did because the alternative was so much worse.  In the meantime, Holden was just annoyed that his knee wasn’t getting any better and his biggest concern was that maybe he had damaged a ligament and would be off the soccer field for a few months.

Holden was admitted to the Mayo Clinic and has had biopsies, bone scans, PT scans, CT scans, MRIs – you name it and he’s had it.  The tests confirmed that he had a high-grade osteosarcoma in his lower left femur – a bone cancer that, while uncommon, typically shows up in teenagers.  This cancer also likes to travel through the bloodstream.  Since there is a growth plate in the lower femur and there are lots of blood vessels near the growth plates, the cancer spread into his lungs.  Since October, Holden has had surgery on both lungs to remove cancerous nodules, half of his femur removed and replaced by a chromium-cobalt rod, and total knee replacement.  Through it all he has remained incredibly positive and strong.  He is one brave kid.  He lifts the spirits of everyone around him and I know that I wouldn’t have been able to make it through this without his great attitude.  We’re all trying to be strong for him, but he’s the one who is carrying us.

When he found out his diagnosis, he was upset for about a day, then became very stoic about it.  He told me “dad, this is just going to make me into the man I’m supposed to be.”  He looks forward to getting the cancer treatments and surgeries behind him so he can come back to the hospital and help children who have cancer.

So now to the Henry meeting.  When we found out last month that the New York Red Bulls would be playing the Philadelphia Union in Jacksonville, Holden was thrilled that he might finally get to see his idol Henry play in person.  Wheels started turning in my head, and I wondered if it might be possible to arrange a meeting of the two.  I asked Helena Gutierrez Richards, our Clinical Social Worker at Nemours Children’s Clinic if she thought there might be a way for Holden to meet Thierry.  She took down some notes and jumped up and said “I’m on it!”

Helena contacted Dario Sala, the Founder and President of Sunshine Soccer Group, which he founded with CEO Mark Frisch last year.  SSG has promoted several soccer games in Jacksonville, and will operate an NASL franchise in Jacksonville set to take the field in 2015.  Dario had a very accomplished career as a professional goalie, competing at the highest levels in Argentina and Spain (among other leagues) before coming to MLS and finishing his playing career in Dallas.  Holden and I met Dario shortly after he came to town as Dario has made it his mission to speak with the entire soccer community of Jacksonville, not just the high-level movers and shakers of Jacksonville, but also the grassroots supporters and youth soccer enthusiasts.  Dario told me that he would come to one of Morgan and Holden’s indoor games.  Since I didn’t know Dario that well, I thought “maybe he’ll come, maybe he won’t.”  I tried not to get the kids too excited about a former pro coming to their game, but I really hoped that he would show up.

Before game time, I got a call from Dario explaining that he was stuck at the airport waiting for a delayed flight, but that he would definitely make it to the game.  I tried to tell him not to worry about it, and that there would be other games but he insisted and said “I will keep my promise.”  Dario showed up a little after kickoff, but he was able to see plenty of action and met with players of both teams after the game and had time to talk with everyone.  That told me everything I needed to know about Dario’s character.

I don’t know about all of the inner discussions between Helena and Dario, but I understand that they both spent quite a bit of time and effort setting up the meeting and making sure that Henry knew about Holden.  We met with Helena and Kathy Devine, the CFO of SSG, who was instrumental in figuring out the logistics of our meeting.  Holden still had no idea what was in store, because we wanted it to be a surprise.  Holden thought he was going to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the stadium, and he hoped that maybe he would catch a glimpse of Henry around the locker room.  Holden stood next to a Red Bulls logo on the locker room door for a picture, and as he turned around he saw Thierry Henry walking straight toward him.

Holden was star struck and speechless.  Henry walked over to him and gave him a hug, and Holden had an enormous smile on his face.  The two spoke for a couple of minutes, then Henry shook hands with everyone and took a few pictures with Holden and his brothers.  Then Henry asked if Holden could come and meet him later so that Henry could give Holden the jersey he would wear during the game.  Holden was thrilled and immediately bear-hugged Henry, just burying his head in his chest, which brought a great smile to Henry’s face.  It was very touching and I’m so happy we were able to witness that meeting.Theirry promised Holden his shirt

Henry had to go back into the locker room to prepare for the game, but the surprises were not over yet.  Alisa Abbott, my wife Katherine’s aunt who is the Executive Assistant to Shad Khan and Mark Lamping of the Jacksonville Jaguars had something else planned.  She walked us back to the Jaguars offices where we met Gus Bradley, the Jaguars head coach.  Coach Bradley was as effusive and outgoing as he appears on TV and in his radio appearances.

Holden with Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley (photo by: Paul Dillard)
Holden with Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley (photo by: Paul Dillard)

He spoke with all of us for a couple of minutes, then he asked if we minded if he met with Holden one-on-one for a little while.  We all left his office and he closed the door and sat with Holden for at least 10 minutes and talked.  When they finally emerged, both Holden and Coach Bradley had big smiles on their faces.  I asked Coach Bradley “so did you coach him up?”  He immediately replied “I didn’t do any coaching – I think I learned quite a bit from Holden!”  That just cemented everything that I suspected about Gus Bradley but didn’t know – he is a genuinely good guy who cares about people and just wants to do good things.  Holden was excited that he not only got to meet Coach Bradley, but was able to spend time talking to him in a relaxed setting, and Coach Bradley has also said that he would like to stay in touch with Holden and visit with him again over the coming months.

We headed out to the field since the game was about to start.  We were fortunate to meet Dave Rowan, the Executive Vice President and Chief Revenue Officer of the Philadelphia Union, who previously worked for the Jaguars, as well as other professional teams.  We also met Nick Sakiewicz, the CEO of the Philadelphia Union.  We thanked them for bringing the Union to Jacksonville and told them that we hope to see them play more games here in the future, after their initial 3-year deal expires after next year’s game.  I even got to meet Mike Sorber, an assistant coach now with the Union, but I told him that I saw him play for the US Men’s National Team when they came to Jacksonville in 1994 and tied Moldova 1-1.  Sorber scored the goal for the US that night, and he was happy to relive that experience.

When the game finally started, we were able to watch the game from the sidelines, again thanks to the efforts of Kathy from SSG.  We also had the opportunity to go back upstairs and sit in the club seats, but Holden and his brothers didn’t want to miss this opportunity to see a professional game up close.  Dave Rowan watched the first half with us, and he teased Holden any time he caught him cheering for New York.  We saw goals by New York (Lloyd Sam) and Philadelphia (Jack McInerney), and then finally in the 36th minute, we watched as Thierry Henry scored what would be the game-winning goal.

As the first half came to a close, we stood near the area the players walked through to get to the locker room.  We saw Henry take off his shirt and walk toward Holden.  I could hear a few people yelling for Henry to throw the shirt to them, but Henry walked straight to Holden, handed him the jersey and give him a big hug, as all of the fans around us cheered.

Holden wearing Thierry's game jersey
Holden wearing Thierry’s game jersey

I know that saying “sports bring us together” sounds like a cliché, but in many cases it’s true.  I think of how the Jacksonville Jaguars have impacted us directly and indirectly.  Holden gets his chemo treatments in a building that was funded in part by a donation from Wayne and Delores Weaver.  We receive help and guidance from Tom Coughlin’s Jay Fund.  I have no doubt that Shad Khan, Mark Lamping and Gus Bradley from the Jaguars, as well as Mark Frisch, Dario Sala, Kathy Devine and Steve Livingstone from Sunshine Soccer Group will have the same effect on countless people in our community.  They’re business leaders, coaches and sports executives, but they are also good people who care about our community, and I’m grateful they’re here.

Later in the evening, after everything had settled down and everyone had gone home, I think we all had a really hard time falling asleep as we recounted the evening’s events.  It has been a rough past few months, and we’ll have tough times ahead, but the memories of this night will certainly help us get through some of those dark times.  Given Holden’s strength and courage, and with all of the family and friends who are praying and thinking of him, as well as the great care and support we receive from everyone at Nemours, Wolfson Children’s Hospital and the Mayo Clinic, we know that Holden will come out of this stronger than ever.


From Jaguars Front Office to Soccer Team President

by Cole Pepper
October 8, 2013

JAX NASL working logo

A year and a half can fly by in a hurry. That’s why the Jacksonville NASL team has named its team president now, more than a year and a half before its first game.

Steve Livingstone has joined team owner Mark Frisch and the president of Sunshine Soccer Group, Dario Sala (who will handle soccer operations) as the third member of the front office. Livingstone had previously spent eight years in the Jaguars front office, most recently as the director of ticket marketing.

As president, he’ll be responsible for “developing all business and commercial aspects of the team, working closely with Mark Frisch and Dario Sala,” Livingstone said. “We’ll be looking to establish a great partnership, to truly engage with our fans and to grow our fan base and support.”

Livingstone developed a passion for soccer from an early age. He was born and raised in Scotland as a fan of Celtic.

“My parents still live about 10 minutes from Celtic Park and you can hear the crowd roar from their front door,” Livingstone said.

One of hie early jobs was as a soccer reporter and editor covering Scottish, English, European and World Cup Soccer. Then Livingstone moved to the “other football” where he soon became the general manager of the Scottish Claymores.

One part of his vision for the Jacksonville NASL team, which begins play in the spring of 2015, is to operate like soccer teams did in the sports organized infancy.

“Historically, soccer teams first started not only to play football, but to provide support to the communities in which they were established,” Livingstone said. “I think there is a great opportunity for us to begin the same tradition here in Jacksonville to help support some great causes and to make a difference in the community.”

Part of connecting with the community will be engaging with the fans to help name the team. Fans can go to the team website ( to nominate a team name. One fan will win a trip to an English Premier League game and anyone who registers for season tickets before April, 2014 will be placed in a random drawing for a trip to the World Cup Finals in Brazil.

Jacksonville Soccer Starting From Scratch

Dario Sala (left) and Mark Frisch of the Sunshine Soccer Group discuss the future of Jacksonville’s NASL franchise in their new, unadorned office. The team begins play in 2015. (photo by Cole Pepper)

by Cole Pepper
September 1, 2014

It’s not that there isn’t anything to see from Mark Frisch’s new office. There just isn’t much to see on the inside.

Looking out from his 32nd floor downtown office, Jacksonville stretches out from the base of the building, down the St. John’s River toward the sports complex and beyond.

The question is this: at some point, will the NASL team’s (name to be determined, probably by October) stadium be visible?

Those are the two questions Frisch is asked most often about his NASL team. What will the team be called (he says he’s asked several times a day)? Where are you going to play (either UNF or EverBank Field, a decision he hopes to make in the next two months)?

In his new office, barren, without a single piece of furniture, save for the built in waist high cabinet next to the front door, Frisch can allow himself to enjoy the nothingness. NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson offered Frisch the chance to purchase a team to be relocated, but the 32-year old didn’t want to fix a broken franchise. Instead, he wanted to build something from the ground up.

“It’s exciting,” Frisch said. “We just got approval to get the key here last week. It’s really awesome. You don’t get many opportunities to do something, especially in the sports world like that. It’s going to be an amazing time.”

For now, there are no desks, no chairs, not even a phone at the headquarters of the Jacksonville NASL franchise. Owner Mark Frisch (right) expects that to change within weeks and by October, Frisch says he will unveil the team name, colors, logo and top business executive. (photo by Cole Pepper)

For Frisch, this is all about prioritizing. He wants to start building the fan base early. Several hundred season tickets were reserved by fans who put down a small deposit. He has his soccer guy, Dario Sala, who will handle the duties of finding and signing a coach and player as well as developing the academy system for Jax NASL. The next step will be to hire a business head. Something akin to what Mark Lamping is to the Jaguars, a president of business operations who will work hand in hand with Frisch and Sala to create the full organization over time. That hire may be the next big announcement to come out of the Sunshine Soccer Group, the company Frisch and Sala set up to promote soccer and eventually bring the team to Jacksonville.

“To me this is more exciting that buying a team and relocating them,” Frisch said. “This is our team from the ground up here in Jacksonville.”

Listen to Cole Pepper’s full interview with Mark Frisch:


Both Frisch and Sala have traveled around the soccer world to learn from the franchises who have enjoyed the best success in the MLS and NASL. The challenge is to blend the best practices of those other teams with a message that will resonate in Jacksonville with the already dedicated soccer fans as well as those who want to be a part of the newest sports franchise in town. Then there is the building of the academy, the youth teams that will feed talent into the NASL team. In essence, the Jacksonville NASL’s minor leagues.

For those who are already sold on supporting the team, is the website where individuals can pay a $30 per ticket deposit to reserve their season tickets for the inaugural season in 2015.

Khan Thinks Soccer in US is “Ready to Take Off”

Khan closeup TC
photo by Bobby King

by Cole Pepper
August 4, 2013

Jaguars owner Shad Khan, who purchased Fulham of the English Premier League this summer, appeared on Cottage Talk, a Fulham specific internet radio show. Khan again indicated that he expects to schedule a Fulham friendly in Jacksonville.

Perhaps the most interesting response in the interview was Khan’s observation about where soccer is positioned on the American sports scene.

“I think one of the things that I’ve learned over the last month, soccer in America is on the runway and ready to take off in a big way” Khan said. “I can’t tell you how many people have come up in the US to talk about Fulham.”

Considering that since Khan purchased Fulham, Jacksonville has been awarded an NASL franchise, soccer is as hot a topic here as it has ever been. And yes, Jacksonville soccer fans will likely have a chance to see Fulham in action, and it could be a significant opponent.

“Our goal is that we want to have a Fulham friendly here next year,” Khan said. “I think its going to be a blowout event. It’s definitely a sports on the move and on the rise in the U.S.”

You can listen to the full interview here.

First Person: How Jacksonville Got the Soccer Team

Three representatives from Jacksonville attended the pitch to the NASL last week: Mark Frisch, the CEO of Sunshine Soccer Group, Alan Verlander, the Executive Director of Sports and Entertainment for the city of Jacksonville, and Tony Allegretti, who, among other duties, serves as the Director of Downtown Engagement for the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce. The following is Tony’s first person account of how Jacksonville became a professional soccer town (again).

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Magic Moments

by Tony Allegretti

July 30, 2013

Sometimes I wonder if I’m in a dream. I’ve been playing and watching soccer all of my life. I coach my son’s team. I’m committed to the sport.

A little more than a week ago I was literally talking to Fulham Manager Martin Jol about the prospects of Fulham Football Club regaining its moniker of “Fulhamerica”.  He was candid and funny and made me feel really comfortable even though I was talking to someone of the stature of say a Sean Payton or a Tony Dungy. This conversation took place at a quickly organized presser Shad Khan set up to show Jol, his captain and Fulham director EverBank field and the investments the team has made therein. It was also an opportunity for local media to meet real Premier League soccer brass. I was impressed that ALL of the Jacksonville sports media was in attendance and earnestly covering the event.

Less than a week later I was on a flight to Dallas to meet with North American Soccer League officials and owners at their annual meeting to help make the case that Jacksonville is ready and willing to support professional soccer once again.

The flight gave me an opportunity to touch base and catch up with Mark Frisch, who, with Dario Sala, have formed Sunshine Soccer Group, the ownership entity of said team should Jacksonville be successful in its bid. Mark is at once a nice guy, somewhat reserved, and a strategic thinker. To the last point I learned that he had also been at the NASL annual meeting the year before in Indianapolis. He has been building for this moment a long time.

The NASL owners were very cordial. Many of them seemed very young. I think as soccer becomes increasingly main stream in America we’ll see much of the investment from younger generations who aren’t burdened by the tired line that soccer has been “the next big thing” in America for 30 years. And I’ll not embarrass anyone (hopefully) when I say that Mark will be the youngest pro sports owner in Jacksonville.

I was able to spend some time with the league folks at the semifinal matches of the Gold Cup. USA scored early and outclassed Honduras and Panama successfully shocked Mexico for the second time in a month. Business lie ahead for the NASL the next day, the day two owners representing their city’s presented their case to join the league. We actually left the Mexico-Panama match early and were the only folks to do so in the 81,000 plus crowd. This gave me time to fully prepare my remarks which were but a few minutes of a 30 minute proposal.

The Jacksonville pitch included our Sports and Entertainment Director Alan Verlander and myself but was mostly Mark. We had seen the pitch well in advance of our trip and I think it was probably a forgone conclusion but Mark was smart to take nothing for granted and I think Alan really helped an already brilliant case for Jacksonville. I spoke a bit about the business climate in Jacksonville and how invested it is into our sports culture. Alan drove home our impressive support of events and soccer specifically. When you couple our latest television ratings (#1 in the country for Gold Cup USA/Cuba) our now legendary turnouts for both US National team’s fairly meaningless friendlies against Scotland and our expansive youth clubs and largest adult league in the state, the case was strong.

We waited sort of restlessly for the Oklahoma City folks to finish their presentation which ended with us hearing a round of applause outside the door. For some reason that made me feel a little more nervous. But alas, it was our turn. Mark delivered a great case for our Bold City. We provided support and stats. We also got a nice round of applause. Once finished we repaired to the lobby of the hotel and waited. There are moments you don’t forget.  I was able to snap the photo above of league commissioner, Bill Peterson breaking the news to Mark. I immediately thought of my kids sporting the to-be-named jerseys and the scarves we’ll all hold high. And it all started at that moment.

Podcast: Cole Interviews Mark Frisch

Mark Frisch (right) gets the word that Jacksonville has been unanimously approved for a new NASL team.
Mark Frisch (right) gets the word that Jacksonville has been unanimously approved for a new NASL team.

Mark Frisch is bringing an NASL soccer team to Jacksonville. The team will begin play in April of 2015. In a wide ranging conversations, Frisch told me about where he got the soccer bug, why he thinks soccer will work in Jacksonville and where he expects to play home games.

Listen to the interview here: Cole with Mark Frisch

Below, fans gathered at the Terrance Suite at EverBank Field Sunday to watch the Gold Cup Final won by the United States and to celebrate Jacksonville being awarded the NASL team.

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Soccer Celebration Set

Landon Donovan

by Cole Pepper

Jacksonville soccer fans will have their first chance to celebrate the new NASL team together Sunday at EverBank Field.

A Gold Cup viewing party is planned for the Terrance Suites at EverBank Field starting at 3:00pm, one hour prior to the start of the Gold Cup Final between the US and Panama. It will also be the first public appearance in Jacksonville for the cities newest sports franchise owner, Mark Frisch.

The viewing party includes free food and drinks (with a cash bar). The event will continue until 30 minutes after the Gold Cup final match.